Unleashing optimism in an age of anxiety

Unleashing Britain’s potential” was a recurring message of the Conservative Party in the 2019 General Election. Johnson’s use of this thumbs-up approach to electioneering represents a continuation of his public image built up over the years, where his seemingly un-spun qualities as a fearless, positive, can-do politician have been key to his ability to connect with the public. In an age of precarity and social division, when so many feel bad, his recourse to the language of feeling good also reflects the close relationship between the performativity of celebrity politicians and the emotionalisation of politics today, where the language of positive psychology is often deployed in the service of stretching the truth and denying reality. As Hannah Arendt argues, lies have always been part of the politician’s armory, and it is important to understand the affective dimensions of that process – especially in the current populist climate, where emotions such as ‘optimism’ or ‘positivity’ may be mobilised in an unthinking way to manage the tensions of complexity and relieve the pressure of having to make a thoughtful choice between say, leaving or remaining in Europe.

The aggressive connotations of the term “unleash” is revealing in this context and it is worth noting that according to the British National Corpus, its use on the News on the Web (NOW) has increased from 897 in 2015 to 4071 in 2019. In its modern usage, it is often associated with the battle cry: “Unleash the dogs of war!”, which was a phrase used in relation to the aerial attacks of World War 2. However, its roots go back further to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when in Act 3, Scene 1, following the murder of Caesar, Mark Anthony declares: “Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the Dogs of War!”. To unleash positive potential is therefore a sentiment that carries in its wake the drama of political betrayal, murder and revenge. The latter seems a far cry from the image of sunny optimism projected by Johnson in public appearances, where we see him grinning at the cameras with his arms outstretched and his thumbs turned upwards like a boyish Roman Emperor signalling for the games to begin.

The message of unleashing optimism has a number of affective connotations which are symptomatic of the wider structures of feeling that operate in the current psycho-political landscape. During the election and in contrast to the apparently dour style of the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson’s up-beat performance seemed to tap into an unconscious register of desire associated with Freudian descriptions of the pleasure principle. The latter was also an important component of the carnivalesque Leave campaign, where fiscal concerns were swept aside as the leavers joyously stuck two fingers up to those in charge. The Conservative Party election focus on ‘unleashing Britain’s potential’ also signalled a similar attitude to that of the Leave campaign because of its inability to face the painful realities of both the present, and the past and the less than positive legacy of its own government with its policies of austerity.

Much has been made of Johnson’s penchant for bending the truth in order to promote his version of events, and his capacity for disavowal and denial constitutes an extension of that deceptive practice. So what feelings are being denied and therefore managed by Johnson in his presentation of optimism and positivity? In an era of volatile emotional politics, Johnson manages to ward off any potential Nietzschean ressentiment of his position as a high-profile politician by representing himself as an un-impinging figure that people can enjoy. As I and Lita Crociani-Windland argue in a forthcoming piece in Free Associations: “ressentiment, refers to a poisonous, but pleasurable form of resentment, that can be politically manipulated, amplified and given an object on which to discharge the unpleasant affect”. Johnson is skillful in mobilising this mode of affect to his own advantage by projecting it elsewhere. For example, he mocks the pomposity of those in the establishment and any notion of governance associated with his role as a senior politician is thus undercut and deflected onto what he sees as his dull and out of touch opponents, and the so-called “elite”, of which, of course, he is also a member. Those who oppose him and his party are labelled as traitors and former colleagues are purged. The scapegoating of women, EU nationals and ethnic minorities are part of this same affective process, whereby they and not he become the object of contempt and ridicule. Therefore, the so-called unleashing of optimism and of Britain’s new potential also lets slip a new form of dog whistle politics to great effect.